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Writing Entry: Grave 43: Remembering Pony

Written by Tim Lambert, witf Multimedia News Director | Oct 3, 2014 9:30 AM

grave43.jpg

Photo by Tim Lambert/WITF

LAMBERT:

(Undated) -- 84-year-old Irene Vigosky spends her Sunday afternoons each fall like most western Pennsylvanians, watching her beloved Pittsburgh Steelers take the field.

But, this Sunday, October 5th, will be different. It'll mark the 70th anniversary of when she learned one of her older brothers died fighting in World War II.

VIGOSKY:

"My mother, one or two nights before the telegram came, dreamt exactly the way it came to be."

LAMBERT:

The telegram presented to Vigosky's mother was notification her second-oldest son, Eugene, had been killed July 25th, 1944, near Saint Lo during the Battle of Normandy in France.

At the time, Irene was 14-years-old. She's never visited his overseas grave and still wonders why her father decided not to have Eugene's body returned home.

(NAT SOUND WALKING UP STEPS)

 After walking up the steps into her small, second-floor apartment in Beaver Falls, Vigosky, known as "Skee" to her friends, is sitting with her nephew Dave Nemeth as he takes Eugene's Purple Heart out of its case.

NEMETH AND VIGOSKY:

"By the way, this is the first one I ever saw. Let me see..I haven't seen it in a long time.  It's heavy!"

LAMBERT:

Eugene had a nickname. It was Pony.  "Skee" remembers he served as a mortar instructor at Fort Benning, Georgia, and would reassure his mother he would not see combat.

VIGOSKY

"But, then came D-Day."

LAMBERT:

Eugene and the 30th Division likely hit Omaha Beach five days after D-Day and joined the vicious day-to-day combat raging inland through the hedgerows and farm fields.

Soon after, Nemeth says the tone of his letters changed dramatically.

NEMETH:

"The last letter that they got...he says in there...pray for me because I don't see how anyone can live through this."

LAMBERT:

To this day, it's not known how Eugene died -- only the date and the place. 

Skee's parents were first-generation Americans.

She knows how much her father loved his new homeland, but still questions why he allowed Eugene to be buried in France.  

VIGOSKY:

"You know it's my brother, they'll going to bring him home. But then he might have had the feeling that he was proud that his son was there, fighting for this country. So, he would leave him there. I never thought about that. We might have to take a break here...because, it's starting to hit me now.

LAMBERT:

  Keep in mind, 60 percent of the families who lost loved ones during the Battle of Normandy chose to have their sons or husbands returned to the U.S.

So, her dad's decision  (nat bells) -- like thousands of other families at the time....

(NAT BELLS AMBIENT)

meant his boy would eventually be interred at what is perhaps the most famous overseas U.S. military burial ground and looked after by strangers.

Row after row after row of white crosses and Stars of David are aligned perfectly in any direction, as far as the eye can see. The green grass is immaculate.

The Normandy American Cemetery spans 172-acres and overlooks the bloodiest of the five D-Day landing beaches - Omaha.

That's the place where Vigosky may have first stepped foot in France.

(NAT SOUND -- CEMETERY VISITOR CENTER)

"Bonjour. Bonjour. I'm looking for the name of a grave."

"Okay, you can use the screen on the other side of the elevator."

 LAMBERT:

Vigosky's final resting place is among 9,383 soldiers, sailors and airmen and four women.

 Another 1,557 are listed on the cemetery's walls of the missing.

This is one of two dozen U.S. military burial grounds on foreign soil overseen by the American Battle Monuments Commission.

LEWIS:

"My name is Anthony Lewis. I'm an interpretive guide at the Normandy American Cemetery."

LAMBERT:

When a next-of-kin does visit, staff members like Lewis escort them to the gravesite of their loved one for a special ceremony.

(NAT SOUND LEWIS)

 "We're going to take the golf cart. (zipping sound). Okay. Here we go."

LAMBERT:

The cemetery is divided into 10 plots with graves facing westward -- toward the homeland of those who made the ultimate sacrifce.

(NAT SOUND LEWIS IN GOLF CART)

"This is Plot E and we need Row Five. So, here we are. Eugene Vigosky, Staff Sergeant with the 119th Infantry, part of the 30th Division."

LAMBERT:

In one hand, Lewis is holding a small bucket of moistened sand with a wet sponge and in the other are two flags.

He then takes the sand -- gathered from Omaha Beach -- and rubs it into Vigosky's engraved name.

(NAT SOUND SANDING OF MARKER)

The process brings Pony's name out from the white marble Latin Cross to the point it can be read from 15 to 20 feet away.

(NAT SOUND FLAGS UNROLLED)

Lewis puts down the bucket and then carefully unfurls the flags -- one American and one French --  that stand about knee high.

He's now crouching just to the left of Vigosky's grave stone.

LEWIS AND LAMBERT:

"The American flag we put in the soldier's right hand and the French flag we put in his left. There we are. What's the significance of that? Well, it's just that...Obviously, the Americans landed on Omaha Beach and it's just tradition that we put the flag nearest the...uh..nearest the beachh. The French flag is always put to inland territory."

LAMBERT:

From Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, to arguably one of the most hallowed of grounds in U.S. history, Eugene Vigosky is one of 1,213 Pennsylvanian's buried or listed on the walls of the missing here.

Let that number sink in, for a moment.

It means Pennsylvania lost more young men than any other state represented in this cemetery.

(NAT SOUND LEWIS)   

 "Pennsylvania. One. Okay. This is Franck Maudie."

 LAMBERT:

Each row of graves is numbered three through 43. Anthony Lewis is now walking down Row Five of Plot E.  Vigosky's sits at the end of the line of crosses and Stars of David.

 (NAT SOUND LEWIS) 

"Wilbert A. Weaver. Again, the state of Pennsylvania. Five."

 LAMBERT:

There's no order of burial -- not by rank, religion, division, state or date of death.

 (NAT SOUND LEWIS)

"Six. James M. Nolan. A private."

 LAMBERT:

Like in war, fate, destiny or chance chose where a soldier lays and who is alongside of him.

(NAT SOUND LEWIS)

"Seven. Here again is Edward M Flynn."

 LAMBERT:

It's a somber illustration of how much the liberation of France was paid for in blood

(NAT SOUND LEWIS)

 "Eight."

LAMBERT:

--  in part by young men from the commonwealth's steel mills, coal mines and farm fields.

 (NAT SOUND LEWIS AND LAMBERT)

"Here we are. We're back at Eugene Vigosky's graveside and he would make it..uh...he'd be number nine."

"Out of 40?"

"Out of 40, yes."

 (NAT SOUND VIGOSKY APARTMENT)

NEMETH AND VIGOSKY:

"There he is. That's Pony. Hmm."

LAMBERT:

Back in her Beaver County apartment, Irene Vigosky and her nephew David Nemeth sit and look over pictures of Eugene's gravesite.

The quiet beauty captured in the photos brings her back to her question of why her father allowed Pony's final resting place to be so far from home among his brothers in arms.

VIGOSKY:

 "Yeah. I still feel that..umm..it had something to do with his love of this country and it's almost like..okay...I'll let you have my son, you know, where he died. And that's why it's good to see...how they take care of him. Oh dear."

LAMBERT:

So much is unknown about what happened to Staff Sergeant Euguene Vigosky and how he came to be in Saint Lo on July 25, 1944.

But while more than 3,700 miles separate Pony's birthplace and final resting place, his memory and sacrifice have never been forgotten -- not by his last living sibling and not by complete strangers lovingly tending to the marble Latin Cross bearing his name -- and facing home.

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